Celina girls soccer

Celina senior Emma Short (5) has been instrumental in guiding the Ladycats back to the postseason.

As the high school soccer postseason gets underway, with bi-district games beginning Thursday, the Celina boys and girls soccer teams have a chance at building off what’s already been a productive start to two programs still in their infancy.

The Ladycats, in just their sixth year as a varsity program, qualified for the playoffs every year from 2016-19 and were in position to do so again last season before the COVID-19 pandemic halted the team’s district championship campaign. 

Celina’s boys soccer program is even younger, first beginning play in 2019 — a year that produced a postseason run that carried all the way to the regional quarterfinals.

As soccer continues to carve out its space in Celina athletics lore, both teams are playoff-bound once again after finishing second in District 11-4A. Two programs on the rise get a chance to take another step in their growth Friday in their respective bi-district playoff matches.

The Ladycats enter their first-round matchup against Ferris ranked No. 19 in Class 4A by the Texas Girls Coaches Association and anxious to build off the promise shown last year when the team was tabbed No. 17 in the state prior to the shutdown.

“It’s great just to be playing. Last year, we really thought we had a high-caliber team just like we do now,” said Steve Nichols, Celina girls head coach. “We were on a roll heading into the playoffs last year after winning our district. We thought we were in a great place and then COVID hits and everything gets cancelled, which was really disappointing for the girls. They’re hungry now and excited to have the opportunity to play in the playoffs.”

The Ladycats haven’t lacked for quality play this season at 20-3 in the regular season. Nichols doesn’t have to look far for areas to clean up, however, with Celina edged for the district title on March 19 in a 3-1 loss to Melissa. Of the Lady Bobcats’ three losses, two have been to the Lady Cardinals. 

“It’s speed of play. I think sometimes when you’re in a lot of games where you’re superior athletically, technically and tactically than a lot of your opponents, you can build some bad habits,” Nichols said. “But you can get away with them those games because of that disparity. Whereas against an opponent like Melissa, Argyle, Midlothian Heritage or Kennedale, your ball movement has to be spot on. 

“You have to be able to change the point of attack quickly and play a lot of one- and two-touch soccer. Speed of play has to be much quicker against a high-level opponent and I think we saw that against Melissa. We weren’t clicking with our speed of play and they took advantage of that.”

When Celina has been in a groove, the coach admitted it’s been pretty special to watch. The Ladycats scored double-digit goals 10 times in the regular season with a season-high mark of 18 on Jan. 8 against Wichita Falls Hirschi. 

Celina entered the playoffs with 198 goals under its belt, including 91 from junior Taylor Zdrojewski. Adding 16 assists, Zdrojewski’s 91 goals scored and 198 total points are both good for tops in the nation, according to MaxPreps’ stats database.

Zdrojewski has been complemented on the attack by senior Emma Short (33 goals, 24 assists), sophomore Lexi Tuite (29 goals, 17 assists) and senior Ashlyn Vana (13 goals, 42 assists).

“Their chemistry has been phenomenal. There are several of the girls who play together in club, so they’re working together not just daily with me at Celina but also extra touches together in club,” Nichols said. “They can read each other and move off the ball well, sometimes without the verbal communication. They just have an instinct as to where their teammates are going to be. When it’s clicking, it’s really pretty to see.”

Meanwhile, Celina’s boys team has been anxious to build off its first-ever playoff appearance since a three-round run back in 2019. The pieces have changed since then, as has the coaching with Cody Moles now at the helm, but the results have nonetheless remained steady for the Bobcats. After an up-and-down preseason, Celina went 10-1-1 in district play.

“With how young we are as a team, not a lot of our players were around in 2019, including myself,” Moles said. “So this is a fresh group. They know the history of the program, but I have told them that this is their chance to write their own history and set standards for future players to come. This is a chance for these players to leave their legacy on a young program and to help us establish our program as one of the top 4A programs in our region and in the state.”

Moles credited a challenging preseason schedule, largely consisting of matchups against programs in larger UIL classifications, as a reason for his team’s success in conference play. Like their female counterparts, the Bobcats can also light up the nets — in 12 district matches, the team scored 71 goals.

On the year, senior Antonio Cantoran has 31 goals and 10 assists and senior Marcos Arana has 26 goals and six assists. As those two have spearheaded the Celina attack, Moles praised senior Edson Torres and Trent Hamblin for helping guide a roster that has received plenty of minutes from underclassmen.

“The younger players have really had to step up. They were challenged early with a tough non-district schedule and were thrown into what varsity soccer is like,” Mole said. “The biggest things they had to adjust to is the speed of play and the physicality. Our senior leaders have done a great job with being leaders and setting the tone early in the year for what is expected of a Celina soccer player.”

The Bobcats have a chance to build off that success in just the second postseason in program history, which begins Friday in the bi-district round against Sunnyvale.

For continued news and coverage on the local sports scene, follow Matt Welch on Twitter.

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